Arlen Pettitt, North East England Chamber of Commerce knowledge development manager, looks at the rise of homeworking amid the COVID-19 crisis and how, behind the stories of workers pivoting their daily lives, stands a story of inequality that must be addressed

As I write this, it’s 150 days since I took my last face- to-face meeting, and 22 weeks since I was last in the office.

The speed with which we adjusted to that has been one of the more mundanely remarkable

things about all this, buried amongst the host of heroically, fearlessly remarkable things that have characterised the efforts of our NHS, social care and other frontline staff to keep the country afloat.

In normal times, the scale of the shift to homeworking would represent a huge cultural change.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), prior to the crisis just 1.7 million people – about five per cent of 32.6 million in employment – worked from home regularly, and just 30 per cent said they had worked from home at all.

Then came coronavirus, and by April in the midst of the national lockdown, 46.6 per cent across the UK and 49.1 per cent in the North East did at least some of their work from home.

Across Chamber membership I heard of call centres being run from coffee tables, property portfolios managed from kitchen counters, and even legal teams representing clients in court from their back bedrooms.

The circumstances forced the kind
of shift that would have taken years previously by requiring businesses to bring remote working out of the ‘too difficult’ column and into the ‘business critical’ one.

But, the truth for many is that it was achieved in a haphazard way, using the first available solution and not with the kind of strategic planning required to make it sustainable.

And so, if homeworking is going to take on an increased role for the foreseeable future – and all the public health signs suggest it will need to – then many organisations will need to look at it again.

Staying connected, both literally through the technology and figuratively through maintaining a team culture and momentum, will be a huge challenge.

As always, there are some structural issues to address.

High speed internet access is the most obvious – take enough video calls and you’ll soon be able to have a fair guess at where in the region someone lives based on the quality of their broadband.

Housing is another – not everyone is fortunate enough to have a spare room, or a study, or even a dining room or kitchen table to work from. Many living at home or in shared houses have found themselves seeing out lockdown from their bedrooms or sofas.

When it comes to developing and connecting a team, keeping the wheels turning in the short-term is one thing, but integrating new recruits, replicating the creativity of team working or the informational osmosis of being together are completely different matters.

There’s also the inevitable topic of the UK’s regional divides.

Once again, the numbers speak for themselves – 49.1 per cent of those in the

North East were doing some work from home in April, but 57.2 per cent of those in London were.

The reason for this is obvious – the industrial make-up of the UK regions mean that some have a greater proportion of professional services roles where working from home is possible, and others more manufacturing, engineering, retail, leisure and hospitality roles where homeworking is difficult or impossible.

Dig a little deeper, as the ONS have done in their figures looking into coronavirus and homeworking, and there is a simple rule of thumb: the more you earn and the more qualified you are, the more likely you are to be able to work from home.

This has been as much a social policy crisis as a public health one (in too many ways to get into here) but the ability (or lack thereof) to work from home appears to cut across many of them.

Clearly, it is just one risk factor when faced with something like coronavirus, and the least deprived are always likely to lead longer, healthier lives.

But the pandemic has drawn that into razor sharp focus.

The death rate from coronavirus among the least deprived decile of the UK population was 63.4 per 100,000; among the most deprived it was 139.6 per 100,000.

We need to ask ourselves as a nation whether we are comfortable with a scenario which leaves our most deprived, our low earners and those with lower educational attainment, more exposed to a public health crisis.

Businesses can’t find the answers alone – even if we were just talking about their employees – we’ll need the Government to act to build resilience too.